Twitter As Passive-Aggressive Enabler

Twitter stamp image created for Tutorial9 by Dawghouse Design Studio There was once a time that if you wanted to lodge a complaint with a company or organization, you could rely on writing a strongly-worded letter. You might get a response in 6-8 weeks. Then came a point when you could call a support line and speak to a human being and, for questions beyond a missing item from an order, your issue might have to go up the chain and you’d hear back in a week or two. Then email came about and a customer issue could be sent up the chain with a simple press of the “forward” button, reducing turnaround times to a day or two. Now there is Twitter, where a complaint directed at an organization’s Twitter account, if not answered within a couple hours, is considered terrible customer service.

Forgetting all the companies that do it incorrectly (creating a Twitter account that only broadcasts, doesn’t engage, and doesn’t have a human personality behind it), there are organizations that have employed people to monitor social media (Facebook, blogs, etc.) to look for mentions of a company and, when negative, to proactively reach out to soothe the offended party.

My Own Recent Experience, Which You May Skip

I had my own experience lately where, after a painfully awful ecommerce experience, in my rage I tweeted how terrible it was and included the offender’s Twitter handle. To the offender’s credit, response was relatively swift for a Saturday afternoon. And then I realized that I had used Twitter to become a passive-aggressive whiner. The response from the offender only enabled that.

In an attempt to offset my poor behavior, I wrote up a very detailed email explaining the issues I encountered and sent it along to the offender’s email address (I had already informed the offender it was coming). I asked for nothing in return — no free tickets, no special consideration. I followed up the email with a phone call a day for three days, never getting through to the offender’s contact and never receiving a return call. What the offender did do, after my third call, is send me an email thanking me for my feedback and assurance that I would be taken care of. In addition, I received a friend request from this person on Facebook. A week later I received a voucher in the mail for two sets of free tickets, something I did not expect, and which even made me feel a bit guilty.

To the offender’s credit, the response was swift and reparations were made that far outweighed the balance of my anger. But I never did get a human on the phone. I was relegated to an email-only exchange. Given the Facebook friend request, I couldn’t understand why I was invited to connect with the representative personally when we had never exchanged words on the phone or face to face.

Anecdote Over, Now Back to the Meat

This entire experience got me thinking. I spent some time researching customer service in the context of Twitter. Comcast’s own efforts have been a de facto standard for a couple years now, so it’s easiest to explain the process through the lens of how Comcast started the ball rolling. Essentially, a very frustrated user complained about his Comcast connection on Twitter, and within twenty minutes received a call from an executive on the other side of the country. The guy who complained wrote up the story for TechCrunch and it became sort of a call-to-arms for companies who are playing social media and want to stand apart. You can read the full story in the post Comcast, Twitter And The Chicken (trust me, I have a point). Shortly after that article, ReadWriteWeb posted the article How to Get Customer Service via Twitter, which outlines how companies can and should monitor social media and how customers can leverage the platform.

This has enabled people to not reach out to a customer service phone number, a store manager, or make some other concerted effort, but instead to complain to the ether in the hopes someone is monitoring for such gripes. Often the complaint doesn’t even warrant a response (is it really necessary to complain about the color of chairs?), but because it’s so easy to do, the complaint comes out. Sometimes it’s the equivalent to complaining that the steak was overdone, but only after you ate the entire thing (not just a tribute to Waiting, I have seen this in real life over and over). Organizations are rewarding these miniature rants by trying to soothe and ultimately offering something in return. And that rewards the people who gripe in this passive fashion, but not necessarily those who take more direct channels. It also means companies who are not monitoring social media may be unfairly judged as dismissive (does my local hardware store really need to be on Twitter?).

There will be times when the stewardess is a jerk. I don’t expect the airline to give me free tickets as a result. Sometimes the waiter is in a bad mood, but I don’t think I deserve a free dinner. My barista put too much foam on my latte? I’m so lazy I paid to have someone who is not me make it. The tech support rep doesn’t have an electrical engineering degree and couldn’t guess that a solder melted on my machine? Oh well, he can’t peer across the phone lines into the hardware and see such things. I suck it up and recognize that these are real people with real lives, not mechanical protrusions of some corporate machine.

And yet too many of us feel entitled to being kept happy without reason. I’m not saying that life needs to be nasty, brutish and short, but it certainly can’t be all rainbows and lollipops simply because we expect others to provide. Customer service (over)reaction on Twitter feeds this. People demand satisfaction quickly and out of balance with the issue. And when they get it, they talk about what a great experience they had, teaching others to use the same bad behavior to get their way.

Unfortunately, this builds on and reinforces behaviors that are already extant in our population. People pull out their cell phone cameras before calling 911 when they see a car accident. They take and post photos of their friends in compromising situations (which are usually nothing more than passing moments of poor timing and good photo framing). Couples engage in fights over text messages and forward responses to their friends. People maintain multiple Twitter accounts so they say what they really think about bosses/ex-lovers/family from a “stealth” account without fear of reprisal, or rather, fear of being honest and direct. These are all examples of how people give up their responsibility as a good neighbor to instead be the one to scoop the news, embarrass their friends, or win a pointless squabble. Unfortunately for so many who are not socially savvy, who rely only on examples of what the broad populace does, these cases only promote passive behavior — often passive aggressive behavior.

Perhaps if you are someone responsible for setting a policy of responding to complaints from Twitter you should consider getting the complainer on the phone. Usually, if it’s worth complaining about, it should be worth spending a few minutes on the phone with a customer service rep. Those who resist are probably nothing more than whiners anyway. Sure, there is a risk that someone will complain publicly (blog, review site, etc), but you can demonstrate that you tried to reach out and were rebuffed. Maybe those aren’t the customers you want anyway.

And if you find people engaging in other passive behaviors that involve you, perhaps the best thing you can do to ensure real and honest interaction down the road is to insist in face-to-face meetings or at least phone calls. When 44% of U.S. respondents to Opera’s survey about mobile web use say they have asked someone out on a date via text message, it doesn’t take much imagination to guess how those conversations go (lots of insincere “lol”s and other acronyms designed to give the asker a way out if the answer is a “no”). Perhaps instead of allowing people to text/Tweet you on a whim to get together, you should expect them to commit to it by making plans (gasp) a day or more in advance. Now you can take some comfort in the knowledge that you aren’t getting the invite only after everyone else has declined.

Whether professionally or personally, don’t be lured to the ease that Twitter (Facebook, et al) allows you to snipe. Make the effort to be direct and approach the subject of your ire. If you are on the other end addressing complaints, then don’t fire back in the same medium. Reach out in the real world, showing that you care enough about the person or issue to make an effort. For both sides, don’t hide behind the keyboard.




Thoughtful post. I love the reference to Hobbes. – Gwen


Because an inadvertent mistake I must have made Twitter sent me an e-mail, stating my account had been suspended. Apparently, within two weeks, I've become an "aggressive follower." I do have diverse interests, and quickly found myself with a dozen followers, some completely mystifying.

-Guess I just don't get it.

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